How Victoria landed the last-chance Olympic men's basketball qualifier

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The court of the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, located in Victoria, which will play host to a last-chance Olympic basketball qualifer that begins on Tuesday. (Submitted by Nick Blasko - image credit)
The court of the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, located in Victoria, which will play host to a last-chance Olympic basketball qualifer that begins on Tuesday. (Submitted by Nick Blasko - image credit)

The weeks-long sprint to win hosting rights for the Tokyo Olympic last-chance men's basketball qualifier was 19 years in the making.

It was 2002 when Clint Hamilton presented a new strategy for growing the sport to the board of Canada Basketball, of which then-Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald was a member, that was met with applause.

The strategy's name? Vision 2020.

"And lo and behold, we worked together to secure a bid for the 2020 FIBA Olympic qualifier, which we think will propel Canada to great basketball heights," Hamilton told CBC Sports recently.

It was fall 2019 when Hamilton, the University of Victoria athletic director and chair of Friends of Victoria Basketball, was on the phone with Grunwald, now president of Canada Basketball, and happened to ask if a bid was in the works to host the Olympic qualifying tournament.

"I had just assumed that Canada was pursuing a bid because they'd want a home-court advantage to try and qualify, and it was on that call where Glen said, 'I don't think we're going to be, it doesn't look good,'" Hamilton said.

"And I was kind of taken aback by that and I literally said, 'Would you be open to a bid if I was able to test the area?' And he kind of laughed and said, 'sure.'"

By November, it was a done deal. The qualifier was awarded to Friends of Victoria Basketball after a $3 million US pledge to FIBA, plus a scramble from Hamilton to get all his ducks in a row on government, venue and sponsor agreements.

"I remember working through the night on multiple, multiple dates to get the bid across the finish line with Canada Basketball. It was quite a process, but exciting," Hamilton recalled.

'Pivot' required

Team Canada was set to arrive with 14 players on Thursday to B.C. The final roster will be cut to 12 on Monday, one day before the six-team tournament also including Greece, China, Turkey, Uruguay and the Czech Republic begins. Only the victor books its ticket to Tokyo.

Hamilton, who spent his life in basketball playing at UVic and coaching at the University of New Brunswick, was inspired watching the Toronto Raptors' championship run unite the country just months earlier.

Even though the men's team hasn't returned to the Olympics since 2000, 'Vision 2020' was coming to fruition.

"I get goosebumps even talking about the opportunity for the game. This inflection point where the game will go to unbelievable heights and bring a country together, that was really the passion and the vision," Hamilton said.

In December 2019, the idea to import the Raptors' title-winning court from Golden State was spawned. Four months later, Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA was shut down and the pandemic unofficially began.

Submitted by Nick Blasko
Submitted by Nick Blasko

For a couple weeks, Hamilton and tournament organizers lived in purgatory. The Olympics had not yet been cancelled, despite nearly every sport in the world following in the NBA's path.

Eventually, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of Tokyo 2020, and event planning was taken over by "massive amounts of safety planning."

"When you pivot with the basketball, you see other opportunities, you see other possibilities. So we use that basketball analogy a lot and ask people to be positive, flexible," Hamilton said.

Everyone on site at the tournament will face daily COVID-19 testing and is restricted to hotels, training facilities and the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic caused two major challenges: federal government assistance ground to a halt, and home-court advantage may have exited stage left alongside the fans.

Nick Blasko, a local organizing committee member who heads up We The West Festival, said the federal government hasn't helped tournament organizers beyond pre-pandemic commitments. The festival was originally planned around celebrating the tournament, but is mostly postponed until 2022.

"We're going to remain hopeful that we will get the federal funding support as we go forward and the necessary supports as we come down to the wire," Blasko said.

Blasko said the organization has submitted multiple requests and applications for additional funding, as directed by the government and the Department of Canadian Heritage, to no avail.

"Respecting how critical and how important and the priority of Canada to deal with the pandemic while still trying to respectfully advocate for the importance of our event and sports and culture in general," Blasko said.

"So I guess walking a very careful line to always keep things in perspective is where we've been."

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday, B.C. Public Health told CBC Sports it would respond "in the coming days" to a request from organizers to host 10 per cent of the arena's capacity. That would be 720 fans, or just over one-fifth of the legal crowd capacity for Montreal Canadiens home playoff games.

Grunwald hopeful fans can attend

Grunwald said he is hopeful of having fans at least by the semifinals and final of the six-team tournament.

"It's not going to be as good as it was when we had a full house of Canadian fans in the building. But hopefully we'll make it to the semis and finals and then we'll have some 10 per cent of the fans," Grunwald said.

The return of fans in the NBA playoffs reminded us how atmosphere can affect the on-court result. Players understand that, too.

Having the last-chance qualifier at home, then, is an extra boost.

"All these players have expressed appreciation to us and those players care about playing for Canada. And they recognize what a special moment this could be in the history of basketball in our country. It's pretty cool," Hamilton said.

WATCH | Maximum of 10,000 fans to be allowed at Olympic venues:

Hamilton said 27,000 tickets for the tournament were sold within two days of their release at "an amount that reflected how important this event was to them."

Now, it's unclear how many will wind up in the stadium, and who will be the select few if the attendance request is approved. Blasko says a lottery will be drawn to determine who attends beyond some delegated first responder and sponsor seats.

"What we're doing here is unprecedented," Blasko said. "And I know that word is used continuously during these times, but it really is on so many levels."

Despite being waylaid by a pandemic, hosting an event of this magnitude in Canada could be stars aligning from that 2002 meeting. Back then, fresh off a 2000 Olympics appearance and with a budding MVP in Steve Nash, the future of Canadian basketball seemed bright.

Nineteen years and zero Olympics later, Hamilton took matters into his own hands.

Vision 2020 turned into Victoria 2021.

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